One of the great unintended consequences of the rise of the Internet has been the bizarre explosion in weird news – and that in itself is a pretty darn weird story.
Indeed, in a time when terrorism and global warming threaten the world, modern media has ushered in the Golden Age of Weird News -- a time when competitive hot dog eating is an ESPN sport, and nude bandits hardly qualify as the dumbest of dumb criminals.
But let’s not assume that weird news began with the blogesphere, the World Wide Web, or even cable TV. The truth is, your grandparents and their parents were laughing at those oddball stories long before Milton Berle started wearing women’s clothing.
So why did newspapers long ago cover stories of hero pets and waterskiing squirrels? Obviously, that’s what people liked to read.
Still, you learn something very important when you read weird news. You see what people are willing to laugh at -- and what they won't. And that's a line that's constantly moving.
Weird News: A guy gets drunk on mouthwash and gets arrested trying to give the Statue of Liberty a hickey.
Not Weird News: A guy gets drunk on mouthwash and on his way to the Statue of Liberty runs over a troop of boy scouts.
Drinking tales are often harmless fun, but nobody laughs when a child dies. Domestic abuse isn’t funny. Burning down your house might be, if someone does it because their pet gerbil told them it was a good idea. In part, that's funny because our legal system is flooded with ridiculous lawsuits.
The truth is, humor and standards of good taste are inexact sciences, with few absolutes. But they do say a lot about who we are.
How Much Is Too Much?
Of course, a relentless obsession with weird news is a sign of something, too. More than likely that would be a symptom of a society that can’t face its own problems, a society that fiddles with nonsense as it collapses under the weight of its own nonsense.
If I’m feeding that obsession by signing on as About.com’s Weird News Guide, it could be argued that I’m doing my own small part to contribute to the downfall of human civilization.
More likely, however, we can’t survive without hope. And how can we have hope without humor? Recognizing the absurdities of life, is one of humanity’s most basic coping mechanisms.
As the French writer Jean de La Bruyére famously said, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.”
So where does that put the average dumb criminal – the classic real-life character in a weird news story? Somewhere between tragedy and comedy.